Create decision-making business applications in practically no time

Many businesses today can't wait very long for applications to be developed, modified or enhanced. This sense of urgency has given rise to a new breed of development tool called a business rules management system (BRMS). Such a tool might be used to quickly craft a set of programmed decisions that will yield results based on business rules. The beauty of a BRMS tool is that it doesn't require the in-depth skill of a programmer to script the decisions; a person familiar with business rules and logic can use the tool to create a usable business application.

I started my IT career some three decades ago as a programmer/analyst, creating business applications for a large enterprise. In those days, it was common for our application development schedules to span many months and even years. Can you imagine telling an internal client today that you can have his mission critical application -- the one he needs to launch a new service next week -- ready in just about a year, give or take a few months? This is what we call a "career limiting move."

Many businesses today can't wait very long for applications to be developed, modified or enhanced. With the pace of business today, even waiting a few weeks can mean lost opportunities. This sense of urgency has given rise to a new breed of development tool called a business rules management system (BRMS). Such a tool might be used to quickly craft a set of programmed decisions that will yield results based on business rules. The beauty of a BRMS tool is that it doesn't require the in-depth skill of a programmer to script the decisions; a person familiar with business rules and logic can use the tool to create an application of sorts.

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For example, let's look at how the California Association of Realtors (C.A.R.) used the BRMS suite of tools from Corticon Technologies to enhance its business.

C.A.R. has about 150,000 member agents and brokers. The association provides these real estate professionals with programs and services that enhance their ability to conduct their individual businesses successfully. One essential service that C.A.R. provides is a decision-support application that helps real estate agents determine which legal forms to use for various types of transactions, such as the purchase of commercial property or the lease of an apartment. With more than 150 C.A.R.-approved forms such as contacts, offer statements, agreements and disclosure documents to choose from, it's not always obvious which forms are the right ones to use for the specific transaction. Using the wrong form can result in legal ramifications for the agent or broker.

C.A.R. Chief Technology Officer Josh Sharfman says it's a challenge for his organization to manage the forms because they change quite frequently -- especially now in these turbulent times for real estate. His organization tried to create a traditional application that would serve up the right forms as the real estate agents needed them. This approach failed, however, because of form changes that were happening faster than developers could keep up with them. What's more, the programmers weren't subject matter experts; lawyers were the experts on the legal forms, but they aren't programmers.

Then Sharfman's team discovered Corticon's BRMS, which includes the Corticon Business Rules Modeling Studio to create, validate and test the business rules; the Corticon Business Rules Server to execute the rules in a SOA environment; and the Corticon Enterprise Data Connector to directly connect the rules engine to a relational database, eliminating the need for integration code.

Using the user-friendly Corticon tools -- the interface looks like a typical spreadsheet -- C.A.R. developed an "interview system" that asks the agents specific questions about a given transaction. Based on the user's responses, the system recommends the appropriate forms for the phase and type of transaction being processed.

"We were able to have a programmer capture the attorney's knowledge of the business rules and design a conceptual prototype of the decision support system within two weeks," says Sharfman. "The nice thing is that no coding is required. Corticon uses a spreadsheet-like format for us to capture our unique vocabulary and business rules and test them before putting them into production. It's so fast and easy that we can adjust to our fluid market requirements without having to manually create code." Once the rules were defined and tested, C.A.R. was able to deploy them as Web services using the Corticon Server, and integrate the rule services into their applications for data collection. Corticon's API allows the integration of business rules, once captured, across legacy applications as well as open source development environments. This is how C.A.R. was able to integrate the new decision-support system with the association's legacy "interview process."

As rules change, Corticon's versioning features allow organizations like C.A.R. to develop, test and deploy applications one day, but not have them go into effect until some future date, such as when a new statute takes effect. The Corticon suite provides the ability to audit the system for what rules were in effect at a prior date. According to Sharfman, "this can be invaluable for a real estate professional to use in the event of litigation." For example, laws dealing with the dispersion of real estate in foreclosure cases may vary from one year to the next.

Sharfman is pleased with his business rules management system from Corticon. "Compared to our traditional development methodology, we have realized at least a 10x improvement in productivity and turnaround time from a when a legislative change is issued to when we have it implemented. Now we can easily prototype application rules and test them with real data leveraging Corticon's data integration features. Also, we can safely add rules for a new form in a few hours, even if it requires the addition of new variables. This same task would take considerably longer using even the best programming techniques," says Sharfman.

The concepts underlying business rules aren't new. If-then-else and other decision-making logic has been at the heart of computer processing since the first program was written. Now the process of defining, designing, testing, integrating and managing these rules is made simpler with BRMS tools that provide business-friendly rules models; automated quality assurance to test the rules as they are being developed; direct access to databases without impacting performance; and generation of Web services. It's a good thing, too, because no business manager wants to wait a year or more for his applications to be developed.

Brian Musthaler is a principal consultant with Essential Solutions Corporation. You can write to him at Bmusthaler@essential-iws.com.

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About Essential Solutions Corp:

Essential Solutions researches the practical value of information technology, and how it can make individual workers and entire organizations more productive. Essential Solutions offers consulting services to computer industry and corporate clients to help define and fulfill the potential of IT.

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